Thursday, August 5, 2004

Japan's top pro players focus on Athens baseball

The Associated Press

TOKYO - For the first time, Japan's Olympic baseball team will be made up entirely of professionals, leaving teams from the Central and Pacific leagues without some of their best players during the pennant drive.

Infielder Michihiro Ogasawara is putting up MVP-like numbers for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters this season but will miss a handful of games when he heads to the Athens Games.

"I'm hoping to bring a gold medal home to Hokkaido," Ogasawara told reporters after going 3-for-4 in his team's 5-2 loss to the Kintetsu Buffaloes on Tuesday. "Heading to Athens, I'm pleased with the way I'm swinging the bat."

Ogasawara, whose nickname is "Guts," leads the Pacific League with a .363 batting average. He also has 14 homers and 54 RBI.

"We're making a sacrifice by leaving our teams, so we want to bring home the best medal," said Kosuke Fukudome of the Central League-leading Chunichi Dragons.

Two other baseball teams were tuning up for the Games on Wednesday.

Former major-leaguers Rob Ducey and Paul Spoljaric helped Canada beat Greece 5-3 Wednesday at Baltimore's Camden Yards.

Ducey, an outfielder in the big leagues for 13 years, was the designated hitter and scored Canada's first run.

"Things went very well. We end up winning the game," Ducey said. "We have guys that haven't played a whole lot this year and they're going to get a chance to see some pitches and get some at-bats before the Olympics start."

Canada's hopes for collecting a medal were bolstered by the performance.

"Bottom line is, we have a chance. We have a good solid team," Ducey said. "I think this is probably the best team Canada has ever assembled."

Before the first pitch, the scoreboard flashed a tribute to Rob Derksen, the manager of the Greek national team and Orioles international scout, who died of a heart attack June 15.

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